Thoughts on Idols

Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
Thoughts on Idols
From time to time scholars put forth ideas or make suggestions that simply don’t seem plausible in light of the hard evidence of ancient historical facts. To borrow an adage from sports and apply it to scholarship, “from time to time even a pro will hit a foul ball.”  One of the areas in which some biblical scholars have been guilty of hitting a foul ball or two is their views about ancient idolatry.
On occasion scholars of both the Old Testament and New Testament explain that ancient pagan peoples did not “really” believe that those statues or monuments that the Jews and we Christians call idols were “really” gods.  Even before we look at ancient historical evidence coming from the pagans themselves, it ought to be pointed out that the onus probandi lies with modern scholarship anytime it questions a view that is so repeatedly made in the ancient sources.
Even a brief look at Jewish and Christian sources show how widespread was the estimation that these physical objects were considered to be gods and goddesses. Jewish and Christian sources such as Exod. 32:4-8; Isa. 44:9-20; Psa. 115:2-8; 135:15-18 and Acts 19:26 seem pretty clear on this point. I am certainly not intending to overlook the idea that anything and any desire can become a person’s god. After all, Paul himself seems to equate greed and idolatry (Col. 3:5; cf. Ezek. 14:4, 7).  Martin Luther saw this non-material use of the idea of personal gods and idols when he wrote in his Large Catechism (1529), “I say, [that] upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” 
Pagan god

So, why would some scholars set themselves against the widespread testimony of antiquity? In part it is because they themselves in their own theology/philosophy have so little experience with worshipping material objects; this is particularly true of Protestant scholars. Another reason might be that they know of the minority view of religious philosophers, both past and present, who played down the role of material objects in comprehending the divine.

When we look beyond the personal beliefs of modern scholars or the statistically rare religious philosopher, past or present, the ancient evidence seems to indicate that statues and other objects were considered divine and gods. I recently was reminded of this when looking at a Hellenistic document that mentioned a pagan priest carrying a portable statue of his god. The Greek term used for this object he carried was “theos”
 (the identical Greek term used by pagans, Christians, and Greek speaking Jews for “god”). Of course this pagan priest did not believe that the god he worshipped was totally contained by the portable idol he carried, any more than Jews believed that YHWH was totally contained within the Jerusalem Temple. However, Jews associated YHWH close enough with the temple, that when the physical temple was destroyed they clearly believed that YHWY’s presence was no longer there (e.g., Ezekiel).
Pagan goddess

I am not suggesting that all Jewish and pagan notions of divine presence are identical, but it is important to realize that just as the Jews closely associated divine presence with a physical object like the ark of the covenant, so pagans, in their polytheism, associated divine status with objects without circumscribing the deity’s presence to the object. This explains the fact that we have stories of pagans trying to control the behavior of a deity by actions they performed on the idol itself, whether feeding it or chaining it or transporting it.

At first blush it might appear to some that this is not a significant issue.  Without clarity on this issue, however, it becomes difficult to understand historical actions by pagans, Jews, and later Christians, for they all associated defeat of another’s religion with the destruction of divine objects associated with an opponent’s faith. After Christianity gained control over the government of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, it was not long before the formerly persecuted became the persecutors. A Taliban-like mentality developed among many Christian clerics as they systematically and forcibly destroyed the idols and statues of paganism. 

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Idols

  1. I understand you are being descriptive of historical fact, and yet some of your allusions and epithets seem to paint this with a negative evaluation. Do you disprove of the 4th century church’s work to tear down the pagan idols?

  2. Yes. I disapprove of any destruction through physical violence. That just did not seem to be the way of Christ. The post-Constantinian church often stole and destroyed the personal property of others with whom they disagreed theologically. Unlike the direction of the Catholic church at those times, I do not value forced conversions. If the force of the gospel message is not enough, then criminal and physical force hardly brings glory to Christ.Thanks for your visiting the blog and your thoughts!

  3. I like your response to Ryan. Thanks.While American Christians may not be violent toward unbelievers, we sometimes hear mean-spirited comments that are unChristlike all in the spirit of "defending" the gospel. Looks to me like a little grace here would be appropriate also.

  4. Richard, thank you for the reply.I admit I am certainly not an expert in 4th century affairs; however, I have my doubts that the church of that day was as violent as it is often painted. We must make a distinction between that of an imperial edict (even if by a confessed Christian) and the actions of the church. And the tearing down of temples, while certainly violent, is still on a different order than lighting one’s garden with human torches. (or think of the interaction between Emperor Theodosius and Ambrose)I don't think forced conversion or the stealing of personal property was as wide spread, condoned, or as simple as it seems to our American eyes… These were serious and radical social changes, and of course this didn't happen without a few bumps and bruises–regrettable nonetheless.I will not argue that Christians have not sometimes been violent, and I do not condone such violence; But I also cannot appeal to our modern sacred/secular divide, either in its Anabaptist or Amillennialist variants, to allow some sense of a sanctified church, unblemished from civil affairs. True to our contemporary sensibilities, we love it when the nascent church is trading in subversive documents and rocking the empire's boat, but we’re not so happy when the subversion actually works and we’re left steering the ship… At least as a counter to the prevalent Yoderian views of the 4th century, I recommend Leithart’s ‘Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom’

  5. Ryan,Thanks for your thoughts. While I am using this a little anachronistically, the phrase cuius regio, eius religio seems to work well for the post-Constantinian church. I really was not after Constantine himself and I therefore want to focus more on the post-Constantinian church (Though you have to admit, there are some cards missing in the deck of someone who claims to be a Christian and postpones baptism until his deathbed).To imply that the church’s hands were clean in regard to the State’s terrorism against dissident Christians or pagans is like Pontius Pilate trying to wash his hands of the blood of Jesus. That would be like suggesting that Calvin had nothing to do with the State’s treatment of Michael Servetus or that the Roman Church’s insistence had nothing to do with the burning of John Hus and the opposition to his followers.When the Church supposedly holds the salvation of the soul in their hand, it would be a rare ruler or politician who would oppose the dictates of the church. Those are my thoughts.Thanks,Richard Oster

  6. I've been reading through Lee C. Camp's book, "Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam-and Themselves," Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011; though the book is focused on the historical use of violence among both Christians and Muslims and how each came to justify such violence, the evidence that Camp presents should leave little room for doubt as to just how violent Christians have acted (abandoning the way of Christ) either for the cause of Christ or for the cause of the state. In fact, reading through the book has been a very disturbing read at just how sinfully sick humanity has become even after "the light has shown through the darkness."Grace and Peace,K. Rex ButtsP.S., Whether one is a pacifist or an adherent of the Just War Tradition, Camp's book will challenge Christians to take their ethic seriously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s